Cutting through the noise among digital health solutions

By Megan Headley

Digital health technology has become a huge market—and an overwhelming one. With all of the new options to bring patients online through portals, apps, and other touchpoints, it’s easy for health systems to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices. This may be contributing to the dissatisfaction healthcare leaders report with their digital health strategy, at least according to the Hospital Digital Health Technology Report: 2022 from Panda Health, a marketplace connecting healthcare organizations with digital health solutions.

The bigger problem is that all of this competing noise is encouraging organizations to invest in solutions rather than strategies. As the Panda Health survey reports, only 6% of organizations surveyed have a fully developed digital health strategy.

But health systems in this position don’t need to start over, says Joshua Titus, CEO of Gozio Health, a provider of digital front-door solutions. For many systems, a strategy can grow out of a useful digital solution. “On your own digital road map, it’s OK if you have one or two very simple goals. You will evolve towards the actual business goals of the organization as things mature,” Titus says.

In fact, he finds that many health systems gauge the success of a digital solution by tracking its use and engagement numbers for the first year or two. “Somewhere around year two or year three, many of our clients begin to look at it differently. They begin to ask themselves, ‘How do I tie this engagement piece into business goals? Are we actually driving more people to use our services? Are we really lowering the barrier to entry into the health system and removing that friction? Are people using our mobile platform to find follow-up care?’ When they begin to tie it into those larger business objectives, that is really where you have a proper mobile engagement strategy that is not only helping people in your catchment area but also serving your business needs.”

Still, without a clear strategy, hospitals and health systems are struggling to find, evaluate, and implement solutions that effectively meet their needs. As the Panda Health report notes, fewer than 25% of health systems report being “very confident” that their investment in a digital health solution is the best answer to the organization’s issues.

The report further notes that the process of finding an appropriate solution is often muddied by the sheer size and scope of the digital health solution market, which Panda Health says “is oversaturated with thousands of technologies across multiple categories.” The survey found that 55% of respondents receive more than 11 vendor calls and emails from digital health solution vendors each week.

For health systems feeling pressured to select any solution to get moving on their digital future, Titus provides a word of caution. “Don’t get locked into one platform that has maybe one or two good features and a bunch of mediocre features,” he advises. “If a vendor comes in and says, ‘We’re going to do it all, but you have to go with us for everything,’ that’s a red flag.”

So, where should health systems start if they want to find an effective solution? How can they cut through the noise to determine what they really need? Titus suggests the three steps below.

  1. Start with your peers

What are other systems doing? “It’s often overlooked, but it’s one of the most powerful tools,” Titus says. While each health system may have unique challenges to address, Titus says that he often finds health systems are addressing “different flavors of the same problems.” So before reinventing the wheel, survey colleagues about what’s worked for them, or build connections through membership organizations that may be addressing these challenges.

Building networks of professionals who have faced similar digital investment scenarios can also be helpful when it comes time to vet your options. It’s critical to ensure that the vendors you’re considering have a proven history of delivering what they’ve promised.

  1. Keep your options open

No matter what solution you choose, make sure it is an open platform with an open framework. “You want a solution that will let you choose the best-of-breed solution for your virtual visits, scheduling, [and] physician directory and bring those together. You want flexibility,” Titus suggests.

Different solution providers do different things well, so the ability to pick and choose what you use for individual services will be important as the software market evolves. When today’s exceptional comprehensive solution falls behind tomorrow, the ability to seamlessly add new point solutions may prove critical for integrating future investments.

And when it comes to a comprehensive solution, Titus also cautions against falling for the allure of a custom mobile application. If a vendor offers one, it “should be a red flag,” he says. “A custom mobile application is awesome on day one, and by day two it’s stale. By day three, the environment has changed and you need new features and new data. You are going to want a mobile platform that allows you to evolve and change.”

  1. Don’t overcommit

Solution providers paint a promising picture as to how they can enhance the engagement. That doesn’t mean you’ll be ready on day one to carry out this promise. Before investing in software, make sure that you have the resources to operationalize the pieces that you believe will be important for engagement.

It’s easy to get carried away with the excitement of creating the perfect engagement experience. “I listen to that and I love the enthusiasm that comes with it, but at the same time it’s a reminder that we’re still messing up the easy stuff,” Titus says. Instead, he suggests, “Make sure that you solve the easy stuff first, the stuff that is really broken right now and that you can actually affect internally.” The big stuff becomes easier to address once you strengthen your service foundation.

The 90% of healthcare professionals who reported to Panda Health that a strong digital health strategy is critical to improving outcomes, increasing productivity, and enhancing clinician satisfaction aren’t wrong. Beginning with clear goals can illuminate how to achieve those ends. However, starting with small goals and adopting one effective digital solution at a time can create a strong foundation from which to grow. Health systems concerned about making a wrong move may find it far worse to refuse to budge at all.

Megan Headley is a freelance writer and owner of ClearStory Publications. She can be reached at megan@clearstorypublications.comThis story first appeared on PSQH.